The conclusion, published Wednesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, is based on surveys among teenagers in ninth and 10th grades at seven predominantly Latino high schools in the Los Angeles area. It confirms previous studies about high school students in the U.S. and Mexico.
Thomas Valente, a professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine, and colleagues asked 1,950 students whether they had tried smoking and how frequently they'd smoked in the last month. They also asked the students how they thought their friends felt about smoking, the smoking habits of their peers, and who their five best friends were. The frequency a student was identified as a friend was used to measure popularity.
Among ninth graders, 25.6 percent reported smoking; among 10th-graders, it was 28.1 percent.
The researchers found that students' perceptions of their peers' behavior mattered as much as whether or not they actually smoked.
If you thought all the antismoking messages had made smoking less popular, that's true. But it's also still true in many places that smoking and popularity go hand-in-hand, Valente said.
"I think that varies quite a bit," he said. "In some neighborhoods, that's true" that smoking is no longer what the popular kids do, "but in most neighborhoods that's not true. Smoking is still being marketed as a sign of maturity."
And adolescence is a time when "anything we've said to them in the past can be open to re-evaluation," Valente said. It's also a time when students turn to their peers as they decide what's important.
The fact that the students were in an urban area and were mostly from one ethnicity might mean the results could differ in other situations, the researchers said.
But the peer influence "was consistently and strongly associated with individual smoking," he said.
Valente said that what surprised him was "how robust the finding is."
"In our past work, people who are at the center of networks will be earlier adopters," he said. "One of the things we've never been able to tease out is whether that's simply a function of being exposed earlier" through friends. The current study controlled for that question, he said.
Parents who want their children to be popular, Valente said, might remember that the status "comes at a certain cost."
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